Portrait of a champion: Jennifer Valente’s Olympic gold is the product of bodily and mental strengths

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Amid the crashes and chaos, Jennifer Valente noticed a transparent path to Olympic gold.

American biking followers will at all times keep in mind the thrilling ultimate bicycle race of the 2021 Olympics — the Factors Race leg of the ladies’s Omnium — because the historic coronation of Jennifer Valente. Over the course of 20 kilometers, Valente marked Japanese rider Yumi Kajihara; she monitored harmful strikes by Amalie Didericksen, Kirsten Wild, and others; and she or he even crashed to the picket boards and remounted her bicycle.

After 20 minutes of chaotic battling, Valente earned sufficient factors to assert the gold medal and turn out to be America’s first feminine Olympic champion on the velodrome. The picture of Valente sitting on the velodrome, draped in an American flag, crying tears of pleasure turned the lasting picture of the 2021 Video games for U.S. biking.

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Within the days after the race, VeloNews spoke to Valente’s coaches, teammates, members of the family, and buddies — in addition to to Valente herself — concerning the milestone win. What emerged was the portrait of a victory that sprung each from Valente’s supreme pure presents and her lengthy historical past within the sport, and in addition from particular parts of her character.

Valente battled for factors within the Elimination Race in the course of the ladies’s Omnium. Photograph: Greg Baker / AFP) (Photograph by GREG BAKER/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

“You’re frequently studying and enhancing, and the extra errors you make, you strive to not make them once more,” Valente instructed VeloNews. “After which there are choices you’ll be able to’t actually take into consideration — they should be made on intuition within the Omnium.”

Along with her win, and her new place in U.S. biking, Jennifer Valente is probably primed to guide ladies’s monitor biking right into a daring new period. And Valente’s success on this new scenario might depend on a very totally different aspect of her character.

The considering particular person’s bike racer

The Olympic Omnium, with its arcane algorithm, and scoring sheet based mostly on 4 particular person occasions, seems to be custom-fit for Valente’s bodily and mental strengths. Riders compete in a Scratch Race, a Tempo Race, an Elimination Race, with their putting in every including factors to their general whole.

Then, within the ultimate occasion, the Factors Race, each level earned in the course of the 20km race provides to that ultimate whole. It’s an occasion that caters to endurance riders who also can generate excessive energy for mid-race sprints, earlier than resting and recharging for the subsequent occasion.

Valente has the best physiology for the repeated efforts, mentioned her longtime coach, Benjamin Sharp.

“She’s extremely robust and carries a variety of muscle, and she or he’s capable of make the most of that,” Sharp mentioned. “She has an amazing anaerobic capability and good repeatability. Her acceleration is phenomenal, whether or not seated or from standing, and few those that she’s racing with can match that price of acceleration.”

Benjamin Sharp (left) congratulates Valente after her gold medal win. Photograph: Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua by way of Getty Pictures

These bodily attributes, Sharp mentioned, stem partially from her lengthy historical past with the Workforce Pursuit, the place the trouble requires riders to speed up to breakneck pace, preserve a punishing tempo, after which slot again into the group, earlier than repeating it once more. Legs and lungs apart, Valente additionally has a character and racing mind that’s {custom} match for the mathematical problem posed by the Omnium and its factors chase.

Those that know Valente finest use related phrases when describing her character. She’s analytic, inquisitive, and very smart.

“Even when she’s ordering tacos, Jenn is analyzing stuff,” mentioned Chloé Dygert in 2017. “Jenn thinks like an engineer thinks.”

Certainly, Valente is pursuing a level in Mechanical Engineering from the College of Colorado, and in dialog, she speaks with a literal and nearly mathematical view on conditions — that’s, when she speaks in any respect. Valente can come throughout as understated and even shy in social conditions. Those that know her finest stress that, behind that quiet demeanor, there may be an observant and curious mind that’s at all times absorbing and calculating info.

“She could be very observant and she or he research each scenario she’s in,” Sharp mentioned. “She calculates. She is aware of the principles. She is aware of the factors. She’s analytic and can research each scenario because it evolves to see the place she will be able to win.”

“She’s probably the most knowledgeable particular person I do know,” mentioned teammate Emma White. “I don’t know the place she will get all of her info, however she is aware of the whole lot about, um, nicely, something.”

Outsprinting rival and favourite Laura Kenny, Jennifer was capable of take factors within the ultimate race. Photograph: Casey Gibson

Studying monitor biking’s technique has taken years, but Valente’s analytic character has been current for her total life. Tom Valente, her father, mentioned that the unaccustomed usually mistake Jennifer’s quiet nature along with her being shy or uninterested. That’s not the case. Valente is just taking in the whole lot she sees and hears.

“She retains her playing cards near the vest,” Tom Valente mentioned. “That’s who she is. It could come throughout as shy and unassuming. Let me inform you, she’s analytical, and actually a considering particular person’s bike racer.”

Throughout a monitor race, these calculations happen in cut up seconds. All through the Olympic Omnium, Valente’s tactical choices had been usually overshadowed by the whirring of wheels and motion of the digital camera. But many times all through the occasion, Valente made the proper choices, despite the fact that followers might have missed them.

Sharp factors to 2 particular moments that required her to make flash choices that in the end received her gold. Within the first reminiscence, Valente held a lead within the general standings going into the Tempo Race, however early within the occasion, a harmful breakaway attacked, forcing Valente to resolve whether or not to react or keep tucked within the area. She attacked.

“She made the very fast determination to bridge throughout, and that isn’t usually her model of driving — she tends to lurk within the background and take factors which are simpler to get,” Sharp mentioned. “However high riders went up the ‘highway’ and she or he was capable of get throughout and take a lap with that group.”

Valente on the rail, adopted by Kajihara, at the beginning of the elimination race. Photograph: Casey Gibson

The subsequent second of brilliance got here in the course of the Factors Race, the place Valente wanted to shadow Kajihara, but additionally maintain tabs on half a dozen riders who had been inside putting distance of her lead. One after the other, riders attacked into harmful breakaways, and Valente both put in effort or saved her legs within the area, based mostly on which riders made the strikes. She allowed nonthreatening riders to assault and freely gobble up factors, figuring out that it put her closest rivals in a deficit.

Had she attacked too quickly, Valente might have worn her legs out for Kajihara’s ultimate dash. Had she sat again, Wild might have leapfrogged her within the factors standings.

“Once you begin off, everyone seems to be a menace,” Sharp mentioned. “Jenn is aware of the factors unfold of the riders, and all rider’s strengths and weaknesses. She knew precisely what she wanted to do to achieve success.”

“Make no mistake,” Sharp added. “She’s a killer.”

Product of San Diego biking

Maybe the defining second of the Olympic Omnium got here lengthy earlier than Valente’s dogged chase within the Factors Race. Through the Onium’s opening occasion, the Scratch Race, Valente discovered herself boxed in on the within with simply 4 laps remaining. Then, a lapse in focus and contact of wheels despatched 9 riders careening to the monitor at excessive speeds. In a fraction of a second Valente maneuvered onto the monitor’s black middle, then again onto the monitor.

Three laps later, she received the dash to take most factors within the first of 4 occasions.

Valente proper) earned a medal on the 2012 junior world monitor championships. Photograph: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Pictures

Three thousand miles away, Tom Valente watched the race at his house in Scripps Ranch, a bed room group northeast of San Diego, California. The crash and aftermath introduced again recollections of Jennifer’s experiences in San Diego’s topsy-turvy Fiesta Island bike races when she was a young person.

“It’s a mass-start factor and it may be pretty loopy; it’s all about energy and bike dealing with,” Tom Valente instructed VeloNews. “Jenn would do the Tuesday night time races on the velodrome, then the Camp Pendleton Experience with me on Wednesday, after which Thursday night time was Fiesta Island.”

That intense three-day bloc of coaching and racing helped Valente forge the legs, lungs, and love of motorbike racing as a young person — an age when younger cyclists usually uncover passions and pursuits exterior the game. Valente caught with biking and credit the San Diego biking group for serving to her follow the game, and develop a love for bike racing.

“Not having such a aggressive surroundings from the start modified my outlook on the game,” Jennifer Valente mentioned. “The group and making it enjoyable — it appears like a cliché, as a result of individuals say ‘don’t overlook to have enjoyable,’ however chasing an Olympic dream is such a taxing factor to do this in case you don’t have that basis in it, it’s actually onerous to proceed.”

Biking turned Valente’s favourite sport at age 12 after the household took what would turn out to be an annual summer time journey to Mammoth Lakes, California to experience mountain bikes. Inside a 12 months or so Jennifer was occurring highway rides along with her father, and at age 13 she began taking children courses on the San Diego Velodrome, which has nurtured a junior racing group since its development within the late Nineteen Seventies. There have been children races and instructors, in addition to the thriving Tuesday night time racing scene, the place elite riders mingled with newbies in a enjoyable and low-pressure surroundings.

“It was enjoyable and casual and everybody would exit for pizza afterwards,” Tom Valente mentioned. “She’d be down there selecting her personal gearing and altering her personal gears. I feel it was an vital scene for her.”

Valente blossomed early, and graduated from the beginner class into extra superior teams. An vital factor of the Tuesday Evening races was how athletes had been grouped by potential and never by age or gender. Riders begin within the “D” class, after which work themselves as much as “A.” As a young person Valente frequently battled with grownup women and men within the “A” class, and the experiences helped her develop the fast-twitch reactions and strategic mindset required for monitor racing. In junior races she usually confronted off in opposition to a handful of different teenaged ladies, however within the Tuesday night time velodrome occasions, Valente confronted riders at her degree.

Ralph Elliott, who has been concerned in San Diego’s biking group as an occasion organizer for years, was the race announcer for a lot of of Valente’s early occasions. After a number of years of racing, Elliott mentioned, Valente had turn out to be well-known for her talents to deal with the strongest riders on the monitor.

“Nothing was extra satisfying than watching her on the entrance of the A gaggle driving a bunch of men off of her wheel,” Elliott mentioned. “They assume they’re sizzling [stuff] and there may be this teenaged woman beating them. It was fairly spectacular. You may see a star shine in a gaggle like that.”

In highschool Valente juggled water polo with bike racing, however by 2011 and 2012 she started to point out nationwide and worldwide success on the monitor and highway. In 2011 she claimed two junior nationwide monitor titles, and the subsequent 12 months she received the junior world title within the Scratch Race. These outcomes helped push her to pursue bike racing full-time, and Valente joined the then Twenty12 professional highway group as a growth rider.

Enjoyable and retaining her legs up within the group pit, Jenn Valente preps for one in every of her many occasions. Photograph: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

One other factor of the monitor that helped push Valente ahead was her first coach, famed U.S. monitor racer Mark Whitehead. Generally known as a hothead throughout his personal professional profession, Whitehead was well-known for his booming voice and stern strategy as a coach.

Whitehead died from a coronary heart assault in 2013, and Elliott mentioned he noticed Whitehead’s no-nonsense strategy influence Valente all through her early years in monitor biking.

“I keep in mind he instructed Jennifer that it doesn’t matter what number of instances you fall down you’ll be able to at all times get again up and nonetheless win,” Elliott mentioned. “I considered Mark after I watched her in Tokyo.”

The strict Whitehead, plus the muse she’d cast on the San Diego Velodrome, helped provoke a love for biking that turned invaluable in her later life. Professional biking fingers out setbacks and disappointments to all elite racers, and probably the most profitable ones are capable of navigate these moments to forge on. Valente mentioned that the love of biking she cultivated in San Diego has been invaluable in her profession.

Valente has stayed with the Twenty24 professional biking group since she joined the highway program in 2011. Photograph: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Put up by way of Getty Pictures

“I feel as a junior, Mark Whitehead in addition to all of the individuals who helped me and had been round me as I used to be a junior coming into it,  of studying the entire strategy of issues,” Valente mentioned. “Studying concerning the monitor and the racing. Racing all types of races regionally — Factors Race, Keirins, sprinting, Scratch Races, and random stuff that occurs at native velodromes like snowball races and win-and-outs — studying work on my bike. All of this stuff had been a part of the journey. I feel that every one contributes to the gathering of information.”

A quiet chief with a rising platform

Olympic champions are uncommon in U.S. highway and monitor biking, and the nation has topped simply two Olympic gold medalists previously 30 years. Each of these riders — Kristin Armstrong and Mary Nothstein — used their respective victories to construct platforms for themselves within the sport. Nothstein turned director of the Valley Most well-liked Velodrome in Trexlertown, earlier than working for public workplace in Pennsylvania. Armstrong has constructed a thriving nationwide teaching enterprise, and she or he’s a figurehead for youth well being and wellness in Idaho.

How will Valente use her platform? It’s a query that Valente admits she has but to completely contemplate.

Valente (proper) helped mentor Megan Jastrab within the Madison. Photograph: Sebastian Gollnow/image alliance by way of Getty Pictures

“It’s going to deserve a variety of thought within the coming weeks and months,” Valente mentioned. “I haven’t had an opportunity to course of the whole lot.”

Whereas the reply might take some time to come back, there are hints in Valente’s current previous that she has the non-public abilities and character to educate, direct, and assist others find out about monitor biking. From 2018 by 2021 Valente was integral within the rebuilding of the U.S. ladies’s Workforce Pursuit squad, following the tragic demise of Kelly Catlin and the retirement of Sarah Hammer. Valente turned the captain of this system, and she or he used her years of expertise and confidence to nurture new riders Emma White, Lily Williams, and Megan Jastrab.

The proof of Valente’s management will be seen within the group’s outcomes. They received the world championships in 2020, after which captured Olympic bronze in 2021 regardless of not having competed for greater than a 12 months.

Gary Sutton, the group’s head coach, mentioned there have been parts of the occasion that even he struggled to get throughout to the riders. The steering required somebody on the group and contained in the occasion, and Valente took on that function.

Valente (far proper) helped lead Workforce USA to the world championships win in 2020. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Pictures by way of Getty Pictures

“When individuals first come into this group, it’s actually troublesome. You’re feeling uncomfortable,” Sutton mentioned. “The strategy of Megan or Lily — after I first got here in, I simply shook my head. I’m not shaking my head now, and a variety of that’s from [Jenn]. Her honesty with the group has stored this group collectively.”

White, who additionally joined the monitor group from highway biking, mentioned she struggled with a number of parts of the Workforce Pursuit, from the trouble, to the exchanges. Valente was fast with suggestions, she mentioned, and her teaching model was direct and constructive.

“The way in which she offers suggestions, it’s straightforward to latch onto it and she or he offers it in a approach that’s straightforward to hearken to,” White mentioned. “She’s been round. She’s been doing this since her junior days so I belief her utterly.”

Jastrab, who joined the squad when she was simply a young person, mentioned Valente’s management energy shone by in her self-confidence. Her steering helped Jastrab shrug off the stress of competing on the world stage in an occasion she had simply began.

“She’s at all times been so supportive of me, simply being like ‘you’re a very good rider, belief your self, don’t have doubts, and simply go race your bike — you understand what you’re doing,’” Jastrab mentioned. “She’s shared so many ideas with me, too.”

Valente lives and trains in Colorado Springs, house of the U.S. Olympic Coaching Heart. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/Getty Pictures

Jastrab and Valente had been paired with one another for the Olympic Madison occasion, and the juxtaposition of the 2 was evident early. Jastrab is a current junior world highway biking champion, and she or he entered this system as a young person. Valente, a lifelong velodrome racer, is in her mid-20s. Nonetheless, Valente took Jastrab beneath her wing and gave her each tactical recommendation and emotional assist as she realized the occasion by trial and error.

“My first World Cup, I used to be so harassed,” Jastrab mentioned. “She’s like ‘nope, you understand what you’re going to do? You don’t have to fret about something. We’re simply going to race our bikes and have a very good time.’ And we obtained on the rostrum. I used to be very nice to have that reassurance.”

It’s a high quality that’s not at all times present in high champions, but it speaks to a component of Valente’s character that would present alternatives for her lengthy after her biking profession involves an in depth. At 26, Valente has loads of bike races left in her legs, and in three years she is going to undoubtedly line as much as attempt to win the Olympic Omnium once more, and to assist energy the U.S. ladies’s Workforce Pursuit squad to a different medal. However in 2024 one factor is certain to be totally different — the remainder of the world shall be watching her.

One factor is certain to be the identical in 2024: Jennifer Valente is certain to be the identical quiet, calculating, cool bike racer that she’s at all times been.